Understanding the Impact of Trauma
Before you can successfully navigate a traumatic crisis and use it as a springboard to becoming a stronger organization, you must adjust your mindset. First, you must become aware that what people are experiencing is trauma, and not just typical workplace stress. And second, you must realize that unprocessed, un-dealt-with trauma is extremely damaging to your organization. Only after you accept these two premises will you be likely to take the most effective actions.
You’ve probably heard the Nietzsche quote “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” To an extent, we agree: Going through trauma can make an organization stronger. Trauma can be a growth experience. But if we don’t handle a traumatic crisis effectively, it will, instead, make us weaker—and in a hyper-competitive marketplace few organizations can afford to operate at a less than optimal level of performance.
We’ve Moved from Stress to Trauma—and That Changes Everything
Sometimes trauma is a sudden single event: a shocking act of violence, or a terrible workplace accident that leads to severe injury or death, or a suicide. It may be an act of fraud or embezzlement perpetrated by a leader that threatens everyone with disgrace and financial ruin.
These kinds of acute trauma are easy to see. Leaders may assume that because these kinds of “shock and awe” events are rare and unlikely, it’s not as urgent to learn about their potential impact. But when you consider that there’s another type of trauma, one that’s far more prevalent, you’ll see why this subject is so crucial.
Sometimes trauma is ongoing and cumulative. For example, it may take the form of sexual harassment, or racism, or discrimination. When trauma is not connected to a single event, many of us may not even realize we’re experiencing its effects. In these kinds of scenarios, where the trauma is chronic and perhaps not visible to the whole organization, the organization is like the proverbial frog in the cooking pot. You know the story: At first the frog is sitting in lukewarm water. Over time, the heat slowing intensifies until, finally, it is at the boiling point and the frog is in serious trouble.
A third type of trauma—complex trauma—comes from exposure to multiple traumatic events. While this would seem to be rare, in our increasingly complex and chaotic world, it’s on the increase.
However trauma manifests—a sudden, shocking event or a sneaky process that slowly unfolds, or the confluence of several different ones—it will have a destructive impact. When employees experience trauma, they start acting from a place of fear. They are in survival mode, caught up in the “flight, fight, or freeze” response.
And when everyone is in the grip of trauma, it is deeply destructive to your organization. Your leaders and employees will suffer. Your structures, systems, and values will be compromised. Trauma will change the way you function. Thus, it makes sense to prepare for trauma (if it hasn’t yet occurred) or deal with it quickly and decisively (if it has).
How Trauma Disrupts Your Organization
When trauma disrupts a mission-driven organization, values are often challenged. Many organizations have a posted list of values (e.g., treating others with respect, inclusivity, speaking up without fear of reprisal, teamwork and collaboration), but when people are stressed and traumatized, weaknesses in their consistent and widespread adoption are often exposed. Eventually, these values erode, creating lasting negative effects. At that point, the organization itself may ask “Can we be trusted by the community?” Employees may look at one another and ask, “Can we trust each other?” and “Can we trust the organization to keep us safe?”
Of course trauma will not just expose hypocrisy around values. It also exposes cracks and weaknesses around operations (issues with communication, decision-making, conflict management), performance (devastating financial impacts), and turnover. Organizations lose good people and then they have trouble recruiting new ones. Existing leaders and employees may wonder, “What’s our story?” Meanwhile new people coming in ask “What happened here?”
All of these factors underscore the need to have a plan in place before a crisis occurs. Once it happens emotions will run rampant, and the more uncertainty there is, the more emotional things will get. A plan made up of strong processes and systems will allow you to respond rather than react. You can do this by establishing a Rapid Response Process that enables fast, sound decision-making.
Immediate Response Tactics
For most businesses, the requirement for an emergency action plan is focused on issues like calling 911, using a fire extinguisher, or evacuating the building. At best an organization may have the occasional fire drill. Even if it has a more advanced “emergency plan”—one that includes, say, role-specific responsibilities and phone trees to account for all employees—it usually isn’t well-developed, well-practiced, or well-implemented. It may be buried in a P&P Manual somewhere, and employees and leaders may not be fully trained.
For one thing, the typical emergency plan is focused on a single point in time. Many crises unfold gradually (like COVID-19) and require a different approach.
A Rapid Response Process (also known as an Incident Command System) is a standardized, pre-planned approach for dealing with disruption. Getting one in place helps everyone know exactly what to do so that decisions can be made quickly, efficiently, and with a focus on safety. Here are some of the reasons why it’s so beneficial:
- It allows people to move into position quickly so they can spring into action. Delays can be costly.
- It conveys more confidence that the response to a crisis or trauma is organized and not haphazard.
- It supports better decision-making and communication.
- It helps to steady emotions and decrease stress for individual leaders and their teams.
- It helps leaders get info at a time when paralyzing fear stifles information flow.
As you begin putting your plan together it may help to break it down into these five components:
- Rapid Response Team: a pre-determined group assembled to coordinate actions.
- Leader in Charge: The central leader or coordinator in charge.
- Command Center and Alert Code: a predetermined location (physical and/or virtual) for monitoring and reacting to events and a code to let people know assembly is needed.
- Information gathering.
- Promote a unifying message.
#1 Rapid Response Team
The idea here is to put together a team that ensures all relevant key functions, subject matter experts, and decision makers are represented. You’ll want to include all senior leaders and leaders of key functions such as operations/logistics, security, finance, HR, communications/PR, facilities, etc. Appoint people to this team before a crisis happens and make sure they know their respective roles and responsibilities. Conduct drills with a variety of scenarios to ensure that all who participate are trained, know what is expected of them, and comfortable with the processes.
#2 Leader in Charge
You really need a central commander. This individual is appointed to manage response activities such as assigning personnel, deploying equipment, obtaining additional resources, and coordinating with participating partners or external agencies as needed. Often, the leader in charge is the senior-most person in the organization. (You will likely need to tap a “second in command” in case the first choice is out of the office, unavailable, or incapacitated when a crisis occurs.)
This leader will want to delegate emergency management responsibilities to other specialists on the team as needed so that he or she can maintain necessary focus on the overall picture of the disaster or crisis.
Strong leaders are always important but in times of trauma they are especially vital. People are scared. They don’t know what to do. They look for leaders not only to tell them the next step, but also to reassure them. It takes a team to manage a crisis, but someone needs to keep the team calm, focused, and motivated.
The leader in charge must “stand in” unflinchingly and without hesitation in the face of chaos and adversity. This may mean being the protector or defender, shielding others from fallout as much as possible. He or she must lead with calmness and resolve, doing and being what is called for, even when blaming or hiding feels easier. Especially then.
Each team inside departments and units also need a leader front and center, visibly and overtly, to assume the role of point person and to ensure unity for their departments when confusion and fear threaten to unravel the organization. Whatever unit or department you’re leading, you can stand in for your group.
#3 Command Center and Alert Code
A command center or operations center is a predetermined location known to all. It’s a physical or virtual location from which the rapid response team runs its operations. It should be sequestered (away from the chaos), large enough to house the entire team, be readily available for meeting, have good resources necessary for communicating, and possibly have breakout rooms for teams to meet if necessary. It’s also important to pre-identify a back-up location in the event that the default location is inaccessible or destroyed during the trauma.
Your team should select a code word or phrase that puts all these plans in motion. This allows everyone to go into action immediately, with little explanation. (Remember, time is usually critical at this juncture.) When the code word is used, this is an immediate signal that you have pulled the cord and that everyone should get into position immediately.
#4 Information Gathering
In a crisis situation it’s critical to centralize information, facts, and data. You’ll need a process for seeking, capturing, sorting out, and disseminating key information. What’s known? What isn’t known? What’s relevant and (just as important) what isn’t? Who will serve as trusted advisors? The goal of all of this is organize and coordinate response activities, ensuring that the most pressing needs are met, and that resources are allocated without duplication or waste.
#5 Promote a Unifying Message
A big part of this plan is shaping and disseminating the right messaging. It is vital to deliberately emphasize unity. Remember, when disruption strikes, the shared experience draws people together. This is a manifestation of the fourth F—friend—response. If we jump in right away with a solid communication plan we can capitalize on the “all in it together” camaraderie. This helps people transcend divisiveness.
By working to galvanize and unify the team we give people a way to preserve both self and organization simultaneously. We show them through our words and actions that they belong to something bigger than themselves and need to function as a cohesive, interconnected, interdependent group. The actions of one can have a domino effect on many others, often unseen. There may be individual heroic acts, but to survive and thrive in the aftermath of trauma requires the whole team.
This boils down to purposely ensuring there’s not division. There are various ways to do this. We can use bonding/team building activities to enhance a collective sense of belonging. We can firmly and publicly address divisive behaviors like blaming, shaming, and guilting. We can share stories of heroism, goodwill, and camaraderie. And in the aftermath, we can give people meaningful projects to do, like fundraising for a cause or group connected to the trauma they have experienced. But the faster we can get started on intentionally unifying people within the organization, the better.
Making The Rapid Response Process Work
As you put together your own Rapid Response Process, you’ll want to keep it simple enough that it seems doable, but detailed enough that it is effective. This will take some trial and error. That’s fine. No one gets it right on the first iteration. In fact, that’s why it’s so important to both practice in advance and to conduct an After Action Review after a trauma has occurred.
Once you have a basic plan in place you will find that it’s adaptable and scalable. Any type of business can use it and it can be customized for crises and change events of various intensities. You’ll be able to train people in it and practice it by “pulling the cord” from time to time so everyone can get familiar with how it works.
A few tips:
Include the RRP in the orientation process for all new employees. Make sure they’re fully aware of the plan and what they specifically need to do in an emergency, as well as what the Rapid Response Team will be doing.
Keep members of Rapid Response Team sharp. Have them present at orientation for new members. Call them together when major updates occur to the plan, when facility layout or roles change, and so forth. Hold an annual tabletop drill, ideally based on the scenarios in emergency plan.
Practice makes perfect. Periodically go over the rapid response process so it is fresh in the minds of employees and leaders and to remind them of its value should a traumatic crisis occur. The key is to hardwire emergency concepts and implement basic training of them in advance. Practice organization-wide drills at least annually that include physical assembly of the RRT. This will instill muscle memory. You’ll know what to do automatically the next time there is a crisis.
Don’t wait for catastrophe to “pull the cord” by sounding the alarm with your code word. If a situation is at all worrisome, pull everyone into a room and invoke the Rapid Response Process, even if it ends up being no longer needed and disbanded within a short time. Often you’re able to say, “crisis averted” and all is well. But simply reminding people that you have a go-to process in place creates a sense of security and confidence.
Finally, be aware that even with good prior training, when a real event occurs, initially, chaos and confusion will be present. This is especially true when there are more unknowns than knowns. The Rapid Response Process will reduce uncertainty and help to contain the situation, but it cannot and will not eliminate the human factor. Give yourself and your employees some grace and don’t expect perfection. In traumatic times—in fact, at all times—we must simply do the best we can.